‘Lean On Me’ leans too much on the magical powers of punitive school discipline

The classic 1989 movie can be found on many Black History Month must-watch lists. But as a tale of public education reform, it deserves a harsher look.

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Morgan Freeman plays principal Joe Clark in the 1989 film “Lean on Me.”

In seventh grade in 1989, I met up with a group of friends at Evergreen Plaza on Pulaski Day, a school holiday, to see the movie “Lean on Me.”

We cheered for Morgan Freeman, who played Joe Clark, the bat-wielding principal of a troubled New Jersey high school. We booed the women who wanted to take down the movie’s hero. We learned what the word expeditiously meant because Clark’s canon of SAT words effortlessly rolled off his tongue.

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Late last December, the real Joe Clark died, but the movie he inspired continues to be found on many Black History Month must-watch lists. “Lean on Me” has great actors and some moving performances. But as a tale of public education reform, it is simplistic and deserves a harsher look.

The plot goes like this: When Clark shows up at Eastside High, litter and graffiti conceal the floors and hallways. For an added flourish, “Welcome to the Jungle” by Guns N’ Roses booms as an incredulous Clark roams the school.He morphs into a bully with a bullhorn, the embodiment of a ‘Dirty Harry’ type and Hollywood’s view of what Black and Latino youth need — a caring soul to whip them into shape for a happily-ever-after narrative.

During his reign, Clark dismisses arts education, demoralizes teachers, tells poor Black mothers that welfare is their problem in life and insults anyone questioning his tactics with a barrage of name-calling. Anyone in his way is bulldozed. Clark is portrayed as a noble Black male educator who wants to help students by preventing them from becoming part of the permanent underclass. The emphasis is not on classroom learning but on passing standardized tests, which is the measure of success by the state.

Context is important here. The real Joe Clark began his tenure during the Reagan Administration when the War on Drugs ravaged this country and led to mass incarceration. Clark’s personal responsibility message ignores racist structures such as cuts to social services, high unemployment and the economic trickle-down theory. The disdain for public schools was defeatist, firm and hardhearted. If we think urban education is under attack today, it was worse back then. In 1987, then-U.S. Education Secretary William J. Bennett called Chicago’s public schools the worst in the nation and said parents should consider private schools for their children.

All that created a perfect stew for a principal-as-savior to be the answer on the big screen. The “Lean on Me” mantra is that individual choices are the pathway to change.

In his review for this newspaper, Roger Ebert wrote of the movie: “‘Lean on Me’ is about a disciplinary process. The movie’s most bizarre scene has Clark onstage at a pre-exam pep rally, ranting and raving and leading the school song, as if the test were a football game. But you can’t pass a test simply because your spirits are high. And I am not convinced that any kind of meaningful learning can take place under Clark’s reign of public humiliation. Discipline is not the same thing as intimidation.”

Too often, Black and Brown children are subjected to discipline in schools as the main driver for achieving success. I don’t dispute that order and routine are necessary in schools. But a punitive approach stunts creativity and emboldens a school-to-prison pipeline. In my own Chicago Public Schools reporting over the years, as well as in my parental school searches, I have bristled at the emphasis on discipline.

In one tender “Lean on Me” scene, Clark visits the home of a bright student whose mother had drug troubles and never finished her own schooling. Clark suggests that maybe the school can teach her how to read. Imagine if Clark had created wraparound services for families at Eastside High, or if he had valued a well-rounded education that emphasized humanities, not just getting a job.

But the takeaway, instead, is that a bully with a bullhorn is all a rowdy public high school needs for a turnaround.

I’ll pass on that Black History Month message.

Natalie Moore is a reporter for WBEZ.org.

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